Sunday, June 29, 2008

House of Representatives Passes Bill to Protect Us from Asteroids

Don't worry, folks: Our trusted representatives in government just saw the movie Armageddon, and they aren't going to take the threat posed by this mediocre 1998 action movie lying down. They're going to pass laws to make sure we're prepared to face any asteroid-related threat without having to send a bunch of oil drillers into space.

The House of Representatives just passed bill H.R. 6063, directing NASA to come up with plans for a cheap mission to send a craft to the Apophis asteroid to attach a tracking device. Apophis is on route to come closer to Earth than geostational satellites in 2029, and if it smacked into the planet we'd be a little bit screwed.

In addition to paying close attention to Apophis, the bill requires the Director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy to come up with a policy for notifying Federal agencies and other emergency response groups of an impending near-Earth object threat. Hopefully they'll come up with better plans than whatever it is they have enacted for natural disasters now, because their track record doesn't really inspire confidence. [KurzweilAI]

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Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2008 June 28

Fireball at Ayers Rock
Credit & Copyright: Joseph Brimacombe

Explanation: A weekend trip for astrophotography in central Australia can result in gorgeous skyscapes. In this example recorded in March of 2006, the center of our Milky Way Galaxy rises over planet Earth's horizon and the large sandstone formation called Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock. After setting up two cameras to automatically image this celestial scene in a series of exposures, one through a wide-angle and the other through a telephoto lens, photographer Joseph Brimacombe briefly turned his back to set up other equipment. To his surprise, the ground around him suddenly lit up with the brilliant flash of a fireball meteor. To his delight, both cameras captured the bright meteor streak. Highlighted in the telephoto view (inset), the fireball trail shines through cloud banks, just left of Ayers Rock.

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Scientists say Martian soil could support life

Scientists say Martian soil could support life Scientists say Martian soil could support life The Robotic Arm on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander carries a scoop of Martian soil bound for the spacecraft's microscope in handout photo released on June 13, 2008. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Handout

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Flabbergasted" NASA scientists said on Thursday that first analysis of Martian soil appeared to contain the requirements to support life.

Scientists working on the Mars Phoenix Lander mission said preliminary analysis by the lander's instruments on a sample of soil scooped up by its robotic arm had shown it to be much more alkaline than expected.

"We basically have found what appears to be the requirements, the nutrients, to support life whether past present or future," Sam Kounaves, the lead investigator for the wet chemistry laboratory, told journalists.

"It is the type of soil you would probably have in your back yard, you know, alkaline. You might be able to grow asparagus in it really well. ... It is very exciting for us."

"We were all flabbergasted at the data we got back," Kounaves said.

The scientists would not go as far as saying they now believe that life, even mere microbes, definitively existed on Mars, saying the results were very preliminary and more analysis was needed.

"There is nothing about the soil that would preclude life. In fact it seems very friendly.... there is nothing about it that is toxic," Kounaves said

Phoenix landed on Mars on May 25 after a 10-month journey.

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant, editing by Patricia Zengerle)

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Nuclear explosions could be key to spotting fake paintings

Nuclear explosions, like this U.S. military test in the Marshall Islands in 1946, released isotopes into the environment, permeating the soil and ending up in natural oils used to make paint. Nuclear explosions, like this U.S. military test in the Marshall Islands in 1946, released isotopes into the environment, permeating the soil and ending up in natural oils used to make paint. (Associated Press)

A Russian curator says she's developed a foolproof method of determining whether a piece of art was made before or after 1945 as a way of sniffing out fake paintings.

Elena Basner told The Art Newspaper that she has developed a method in collaboration with Russian scientists based on the idea that man-made nuclear explosions from the 1940s to 1960s released isotopes into the environment.

These isotopes, Caesium-137 and Strontium-90, permeated the earth's oil and plant life and ended up in works of art made in the post-war era because natural oils, usually flax/linseed, were used as binding agents for paints.

"I wanted to find something ironclad … that couldn't be disputed, and this led me to approach scientists for ideas," said Basner.

More than 500 nuclear explosions since 1945

Basner, who now works as a consultant, says she developed the testing technique while working as curator of 20th-century art at the Russian Museum from 1978 to 2003.

"The number of avant-garde fakes out there today is unbelievable, probably more than the number of genuine works," says Basner.

She says she needed to authenticate Russian works dating from 1900 to 1930 and that's what led her and the scientists to examine the nuclear isotope idea.

The first nuclear explosion took place in July 1945 in the U.S. and from then until 1963 more than 500 were carried out by various countries.

Flax fields absorbed the isotopes from nuclear fallout, resulting in traces of the isotopes in natural oils used in paints.

At the very least works known to have been produced prior to 1945 can be authenticated because they won't have any traces of the two isotopes.

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Louisiana passes first antievolution "academic freedom" law

By John Timmer

As we noted last month, a number of states have been considering laws that, under the guise of "academic freedom," single out evolution for special criticism. Most of them haven't made it out of the state legislatures, and one that did was promptly vetoed. But the last of these bills under consideration, the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), was enacted by the signature of Governor Bobby Jindal yesterday. The bill would allow local school boards to approve supplemental classroom materials specifically for the critique of scientific theories, allowing poorly-informed board members to stick their communities with Dover-sized legal fees.

The text of the LSEA suggests that it's intended to foster critical thinking, calling on the state Board of Education to "assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories." Unfortunately, it's remarkably selective in its suggestion of topics that need critical thinking, as it cites scientific subjects "including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

Oddly, the last item on the list is not the subject of any scientific theory; the remainder are notable for being topics that are the focus of frequent political controversies rather than scientific ones.

The opposition

The bill has been opposed by every scientific society that has voiced a position on it, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science. AAAS CEO Alan Leshner warned that the bill would "unleash an assault against scientific integrity, leaving students confused about science and unprepared to excel in a modern workforce."

Jindal, who was a biology major during his time at Brown University, even received a veto plea from his former genetics professor. "Without evolution, modern biology, including medicine and biotechnology, wouldn't make sense," Professor Arthur Landy wrote. "I hope he [Jindal] doesn't do anything that would hold back the next generation of Louisiana's doctors."


Lining up to promote the bill were a coalition of religious organizations and Seattle's pro-Intelligent Design think tank, the Discovery Institute. According to the Louisiana Science Coalition, Discovery fellows helped write the bill and arranged for testimony in its favor in the legislature. The bill itself plays directly into Discovery's strategy, freeing local schools to "use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner."

Discovery, conveniently, has made just such a supplemental text available. As we noted in our earlier analysis, Discovery hopes to use these bills as a way to push its own textbook into the classroom. Having now read the text of the book, it is clear that our earlier analysis was correct; the book badly misrepresents the scientific community's understanding of evolution in order to suggest that the basics of the theory are questioned by biologists. In doing so, it ignores many of the specific questions about evolution that are actively debated by scientists.

Courts in Pennsylvania and Georgia have both ruled that laws which single out evolution serve no secular purpose and are evidence of unconstitutional religious motivations. Those precedents, however, do not apply to Louisiana, and it's possible that the LSEA will either be ruled constitutional or remain in force for years before a court rejects it. That will leave the use of supplemental scientific material to be determined by local school boards in the intervening years and, if boards in Florida are viewed as evidence, they are likely to be spectacularly incapable of judging scientific issues.

As such, most observers are expecting the passage of the LSEA by the state to unleash a series of Dover-style cases, as various local boards attempt to discover the edges of what's constitutionally allowable. The AAAS' Leshner suggested that the bill's passage would "provoke an expensive, divisive legal fight." In vetoing similar legislation in Oklahoma, Governor Brad Henry suggested it would end up "subjecting them [school officials] to an explosion of costly and protracted litigation that would have to be defended at taxpayers' expense." In essence, Jindal is inviting local school boards to partake in that explosion without committing the state to paying the inevitable costs.

In the meantime, the students of the state will be subjected to an "anything goes" approach to science—if it looks scientific to a school board, it can appear in the classroom.

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Stephen Hawking's explosive new theory

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

Prof Stephen Hawking has come up with a new idea to explain why the Big Bang of creation led to the vast cosmos that we can see today.

The new theory believes original estimates of Big Bang expansion are wrong

Astronomers can deduce that the early universe expanded at a mind-boggling rate because regions separated by vast distances have similar background temperatures.

They have proposed a process of rapid expansion of neighbouring regions, with similar cosmic properties, to explain this growth spurt which they call inflation.

But that left a deeper mystery: why did inflation occur in the first place?

Now New Scientist reports that an answer has been proposed by Prof Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, working with Prof Thomas Hertog of the Astroparticle and Cosmology Laboratory in Paris.

Prof Hawking is best known for his attempts to combine theories of the very small, quantum theory, and that of gravity and the very big, general relativity, into a new theory, called quantum gravity.

Quantum mechanics is awash with strange ideas and can shed new light on inflation, which came in the wake of when the universe itself was around the size of an atom.

By quantum lore, when a particle of light travels from A to B, it does not take one path but explores every one simultaneously, with the more direct routes being used more heavily.

This is called a sum over histories and Prof Hawking and Prof Hertog propose the same thing for the cosmos.

In this theory, the early universe can be described by a mathematical object called a wave function and, in a similar way to the light particle, the team proposed two years ago that this means that there was no unique origin to the cosmos: instead the wave function of the universe embraced a multitude of means to develop.

This is very counter intuitive: they argued the universe began in just about every way imaginable (and perhaps even some that are not). Out of this profusion of beginnings, like a blend of a God’s eye view of every conceivable kind of creation, the vast majority of the baby universes withered away to leave the mature cosmos that we can see today.

But, like any new idea, there were problems. The professors found that they could not explain the rapid expansion - inflation - of the universe, evidence of which is left behind all around us in what is called the cosmic microwave background, in effect the echo of the big bang, a relic of creation that can be measured with experiments on balloons and on space probes.

Now, in a paper in Physical Review Letters with Prof James Hartle of the University of California, Santa Barbara, they realised that their earlier estimates of inflation were wrong because they had not fully thought through the connection between, on the one hand, their theoretical predictions and, on the other, our observations of the echo.

At first, they found that the most probable history of the cosmos had only undergone "a little bit of inflation at the beginning, contradicting the observations," said Prof Hertog. Now, after a correction to take account of how the data we have on inflation is based on only a view of a limited volume of the universe, they find that the wave function does indeed predict a long period of inflation.

  • Hawking warns Government over 'disastrous' science funding cuts
  • Stephen Hawking seeks 'Einsteins of Africa'
  • Hawking: Man must leave planet Earth
  • "This proposal, with volume weighting, can explain why the universe inflated," Prof Hawking tells New Scientist. By taking into account that we have a parochial view of the cosmos, the team has come up with a radical new take on cosmology.

    Most models of the universe are bottom-up, that is, you start from well-defined initial conditions of the Big Bang and work forward. However, Prof Hertog and Prof Hawking say that we do not and cannot know the initial conditions present at the beginning of the universe. Instead, we only know the final state - the one we are in now.

    Their idea is therefore to start with the conditions we observe today - like the fact that at large scales one does not need to adopt quantum lore to explain how the universe (it behaves classically, as scientists say) - and work backwards in time to determine what the initial conditions might have looked like.

    In this way, they argue the universe did not have just one unique beginning and history but a multitude of different ones and that it has experienced them all.

    The new theory is also attractive because it fits in with string theory - the most popular candidate for a "theory of everything."

    String theory allows the existence of an" unimaginable multitude of different types of universes in addition to our own," but it does not provide a selection criterion among these and hence no explanation for why our universe is, the way it is", says Prof Hertog.

    "For this, one needs a theory of the wave function of the universe."

    And now the world of cosmology has one. The next step is to find specific predictions that can be put to the test, to validate this new view of how the cosmos came into being.

    Original here

    Drought-resistant wheat beats Australian heat

    WILL Australia's farmers fall for the charms of drought-resistant wheat, even if it's genetically modified? Faced with climate change and a growing food crisis, enthusiasts certainly hope such traits will help overcome aversion to GM technology.

    Of 24 strains of GM wheat tested in field trials, two lines exceeded the yield of the non-GM variety by 20 per cent under drought conditions, according to German Spangenberg of the Victoria Department of Primary Industries in Melbourne, Australia. The results were presented last week at the Bio2008 convention in San Diego, California.

    Environmental groups remain unconvinced. "The main driver of genetic engineering is to make it possible to patent crop strains. That won't help farmers in developing countries who need to keep back seeds for their next year's crop," says Louise Sales of Greenpeace Australia in Sydney.

    Australian farmers may yet be persuaded. The forecast for this year's wheat crop has just been trimmed by 9 per cent because of dry conditions, although it may still be up by 10 million tonnes compared to last year's drought-devastated crop.

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    Natural Gas Can Power Vehicles OR Electric Power Plants

    Clean Natural Gas bus
    There is nothing really new about using Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) as a vehicle fuel. It works well in internal combustion engines and it is possible to squeeze enough energy on board in a reasonable size tank at a reasonable pressure to provide gasoline or diesel equivalent range. There are modification kits available for a number of automobiles, there is at least one production automobile (Honda Civic GX) and there are a number of options for buses (Viking CNG BS-III, New Flyer C/L30LF, C/L35LF, C/L40LF, etc.) suitable for municipal fleets.

    The new thing, the reason that talk about CNG is growing, is that natural gas now costs about half as much per unit energy as gasoline and has an even greater cost advantage over diesel fuel.

    With new software and lean-burning regimes available, CNG powered engines have improved their fuel economy to the point where they have reached essential parity with engines powered by the sister fossil fuels of gasoline and diesel. To compare fuel cost per mile, it is not a bad approximation to compare fuel costs per BTU, (or MMBTU, or therm).

    I know, there are enough different units out there to cause some confusion, but if you want to do battle with the energy suppliers, you have to learn their language. Two thumb rules worth knowing - multiply the cost of natural gas in $/MMBTU by 6 and you will find out how much an oil equivalent barrel of natural gas costs. Multiply the cost of a gallon of diesel fuel by 7 and you will find out its cost in $/MMBTU.

    One of my most frequently visited web sites is Energy Prices where you can find the market prices for a number of different fuels. There you can find daily market prices (without taxes and retail mark ups) for natural gas, gasoline and distillate fuels (heating oil and diesel fuel are essentially the same composition.) Example: today, natural gas delivered to New York City gate (a trading hub) costs $13.92, the equivalent of $83.50 per barrel when converted to oil equivalent units. Diesel fuel costs $3.92 per gallon, the equivalent of $27.50 per MMBTU. Arm yourself with this information and you can see why people in decision making positions are looking hard at CNG again.

    CNG vehicles have been around for a while, have good track records for safety and cleanliness, and have a growing pool of satisfied customers. The federal government also provides some generous subsidies for both individuals and fleet purchasers. Under the Energy Policy Act of 1992, natural gas qualifies as an alternative fuel, which gives it a certain tax status by providing EPAct credits.

    Throw in those incentives, a shift in the market price to significantly favor natural gas and some long term marketing efforts by coalitions that include Sierra Club, NRDC, ExxonMobil,,, Natural Gas Vehicle Association and Chesapeake Energy and you may soon see a lot more of those CNG vehicles on the road.

    Of course, those who know me at all know that I have difficulty producing an energy related article without bringing up nuclear power, so here is the expected plug. In recent memory, natural gas has actually been far less expensive than it is today. In 2003, for example, an MIT study about energy futures assumed that the high price case would be $4.00 per MMBTU with about a 5% annual increase.

    Using that prediction, gas should cost just $5.10 per MMBTU, not $13.92. The difference is that gas is now the “go to” electricity fuel. A little more than 20% of the electricity in the US is produced by burning natural gas - the quantity of gas consumed in power plants has increased by 30% since 2000.

    When we begin building and operating new nuclear power plants, which run on abundant fuel that costs just $0.50 per MMBTU (including the waste storage fee), we will free up a lot of gas and drive down its market price. That will make room for a lot of domestically powered CNG vehicles and reduce the amount of oil that we need to import. (The reason I “shouted” the word OR in the title is that every BTU of gas can only be burned once. Every bit that burns in power plants cannot be burned in vehicle engines.)

    That kind of talk makes it hard for aggressive nukes like me to build coalitions with other energy suppliers who are thoroughly enjoying their current market power, but how does it sound to you?

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    US halts solar energy projects over environment fears

    By Catherine Elsworth in Los Angeles

    The US government is putting a hold on new solar energy projects on public land for two years so it can study the environmental impact of sun-driven plants.

    The Bureau of Land Management says the moratorium on solar proposals is needed to determine how a new generation of large-scale projects could affect plants and wildlife on the land it manages.

    The move has angered some solar energy proponents who argue it could hold up the industry at a vital juncture, given the pressing need to secure alternative energy sources at a time of soaring oil prices. "This technology has been around for nearly three decades.

    If there is an environmental concern, that can be addressed without putting a halt to this technology and helping to impact our greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental degradation from coal-fired and natural gas plants," said Brad Collins, executive director of the American Solar Energy Society.

    He said the review appeared to be an arbitrary "road block" that contradicted "the stated goals of both presidential candidates, the stated goals of Congress and the American public." The Bureau of Land Management, which looks after 258 million acres of federal land, much of it flat, sun-baked terrain in the western US considered ideal for solar energy development, says the study is required by law and backed by environmental groups.

    "Obviously the footprint from solar development is significant," said Celia Boddington, a BLM spokeswoman.

    "(The solar plants) cover thousands of acres potentially, and we need to determine what the environmental consequences are of that, look at what it means when you spray the land with herbicides or remove vegetation." She said the BLM's solar programme was "completely new" and required a framework to be established.

    The environmental assessment was being "fast-tracked". During the study, the BLM will not accept any new applications to lease public land for solar developments. But it insists it is "not holding industry up" and will continue to process 150 existing applications for roughly one million acres of federal land considered to have the best potential for solar development.

    Together the proposed projects could produce as much as 70 billion watts of electricity, enough energy to power 20 million homes. Most of the applications were received during the past year and a half, Ms Boddington said.

    "So it's still very, very new. The potential is there but we want to make sure we do it properly because the environmental impacts are potentially significant. This is exciting, it's a great opportunity but solar development has not yet been established commercially on a large scale."

    Mr Collins argued the analysis could halt recent momentum in the domestic solar industry that has seen "a large number of international, large-scale players move their operations and headquarters" to the US and impact the growing field of "green collar jobs".

    "It would be an example of taking a new industry and arbitrarily placing road blocks in the way to a transition to the safe, sustainable energy economy that everybody says they want."

    Original here

    Greenpeace crashes coal meeting using phony front

    By Bruce Nichols

    NEW YORK (Reuters) - Greenpeace posed as a pro-coal organization to become a sponsor of the 2008 McCloskey Coal USA conference, which was surprised but allowed them to deliver a brief anti-coal message, officials said Friday.

    When The McCloskey Group figured out who the Institute for Energy Solutions really were, they decided to let Greenpeace have their booth under the phone name and make brief remarks, organizers said.

    The conference managers did take the precaution of adding security because of Greenpeace's reputation for confrontational, disruptive tactics, they said. The muscle was used once, to eject one Greenpeace member.

    Greenpeace spokesman Carroll Muffett was allowed to speak against coal as a polluting fuel for a few minutes, and the team manned a booth offering information and anti-coal paraphernalia.

    "It's a lot of value for the money," said Muffett of the $8,500 co-sponsorship fee that made the Greenpeace front group publishers of the conference brochure.

    In the brochure, an ad for the fake Institute seems pro-coal, but if readers go to the website, they are redirected to

    The Greenpeace team handed out business cards that read: "The Institute for Energy Solutions is a joke. So is clean coal." The cards were signed Greenpeace.

    Muffett said the environmental action group merely copied a tactic used by several industries, creating a benign-sounding but phone front to promote their position.

    Gerard McCloskey, chairman of the consulting and publishing company that bears his name, said it was his second experience with Greenpeace recently.

    The group disrupted a conference in London several months ago, and he decided to try to have a conversation with Greenpeace, McCloskey said.

    "I thought what we should do was engage them," McCloskey said. "All of us have children, grandchildren. It was good to see Greenpeace here willing to put their argument out."

    As the conference broke for lunch Thursday, Greenpeace had Muffett's 9-year-old daughter and two boys ages 10 and 11 handing out asthma inhalers and masks.

    That offended some attendees. "I think that using kids ... was inappropriate," McCloskey said.

    Muffett demurred, saying the 10-year-old boy has asthma and the youngsters wanted to be there. "What to me is unconscionable is to sell a product when you know it gives children asthma," Muffett said.

    Muffett said he was pleased with the effort and called the conference attendees "quite receptive" after they listened quietly and responded to his remarks with polite applause.

    "Maybe the coal industry's excessively polite," McCloskey said.

    McCloskey said he would like to address a Greenpeace meeting. "I would like to persuade them that they're wrong in key areas," he said.

    (Reporting by Bruce Nichols; Editing by John Picinich)

    Original here

    US Calls for Moratorium on Solar...WHA?!

    Written by Hank Green
    The world is such a strange place. Faced with the burgeoning demand sunny land in the southwest United States, the Bureau of Land Management (the US agency that controls government-owned lands that aren't forests) has decided to put a two-year moratorium new solar power plants. During this period, they're going to be doing studies on the impact that solar power plants have on desert habitat and wildlife.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm in favor of environmental assessments, and solar power projects do have significant impacts on sensitive lands. Some of the areas for proposed solar power, I'm sure, are going to be inappropriate for that use. Roads have to be built, concrete is laid down, and electrical transmission lines have to be built.

    But solar power projects have significantly less environmental impact than, say, oil and gas exploration or cattle grazing. Those happen to be the two most common uses of BLM lands. Yet, somehow they haven't called for a moratorium on new oil and gas development. How odd...

    What we're seeing here is yet another example (like the 600 year waiting list for wind power permits) of a government that is extremely slow to adapt to new circumstances. The BLM has no idea how to properly conduct an environmental assessment for a solar project. So, instead of figuring it out as they permit them, they're simply stopping all development.

    This simply can't be allowed. The permits that the BLM is working through could power more than 10% of the households in the United States. This is the first opportunity we've ever had to make renewable energy a significant part of the energy mix in America.

    Solar stocks are down significantly on this news. The BLM's lands are crucial to making solar power mainstream. This break could be deadly to many young solar companies. If anyone in our government is paying attention, they need to increase the BLM's funding so they can deal with this influx without having to take a two year break. And it has to be done now.

    Original here

    Can We Love Oil and Be Green at the Same Time? Yes Say Republicans

    Community Solar Power

    AP Interview: Ex-Intel head pushes electric cars

    |Associated Press Writer

    WASHINGTON - Former Intel Corp. chairman Andy Grove has a knack for sensing when larger circumstances should force changes at a company or an industry -- and how to respond.

    He even has coined a term for it: the "strategic inflection point." Now the retired chairman of the world's largest computer chip maker thinks the term applies to energy and transportation, where record-high gasoline and oil prices have renewed interest in alternative energy sources and advanced vehicles.

    During the past year and a half, Grove has created his own crash course in electric power, plug-in hybrid vehicles and finding ways of shifting the nation's fleet of vehicles from gas. His goal: To draw more attention to electric vehicles.

    "The most important thing I would like to do is light that almost half-assumed truth up in neon lights. Electricity in transportation has to be done. It is urgent. It is important that everything else is secondary," Grove said during a recent phone interview with The Associated Press.

    "The drumbeat of the electrical transportation is accelerating like nothing I've ever seen in my life," Grove said.

    Grove, 71, who was named Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1997, is the latest industry and government heavyweight to push plug-in hybrids and electric cars. Former CIA director James Woolsey, former Secretary of State George Schultz and Google Inc.'s philanthropic arm,, have touted the benefits of cars that could plug into a standard wall outlet to recharge the battery.

    Several automakers are testing plug-in prototypes that would allow the vehicle to run on electric power for the first 40 miles. The technology hinges on the development of advanced lithium ion batteries and companies such as General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. hope to have an extended range plug-in available in limited quantities by 2010.

    In the latest edition of The American, published by the American Enterprise Institute, Grove writes that the beauty of electric power is its ability to be produced through multiple sources such as coal, wind and nuclear, and its "stickiness" -- it can only be transported over land.

    Oil, by contrast, "flows to the highest bidder," making the United States more susceptible to large demands for petroleum from growing economies such as China.

    While car makers have been developing plug-ins, Grove says the nation should consider ways of retrofitting the 80 million low-mileage pickups, sport utility vehicles and vans on the road to make them capable of running on both gasoline and electric power.

    Giving these vehicles "dual fuel" functions would be similar to changes made in other technologies. DVD players, for example, were often combined with VCR tape players when they were first introduced to help consumers make the transition.

    To push the technology along, Grove suggests tax incentives to take the risk out of battery development and help offset the costs of conversion kits. Utilities, he says, could subsidize the early adopters of plug-ins by providing free electric power to the vehicles for the first year to 18 months.

    "I think it is a legitimate place for the government to fund, to accelerate it," he said.

    Automakers have urged the government to provide more consumer tax incentives and research aid to develop advanced batteries, but they have questioned efforts to retrofit the vehicles.

    Any changes to the engine would void the warranty, and the alterations could undermine the vehicle's reliability and safety functions, automakers say.

    "We strongly discourage consumers from retrofitting vehicles," said GM spokesman Greg Martin.

    Grove says the fledgling plug-in hybrid movement offers parallels to the Homebrew Computer Club from the mid-1970s that helped electronic hobbyists in northern California set the stage for personal computers. Plug-in hybrid conversion shops could spread the technology in similar ways.

    "The personal computer ... went to individuals first before it went to corporations. The conversion goes to individuals," Grove said. "Electric cars ... the corporations are sitting, wishing this whole friggin' thing to go away. Which is exactly what the computer companies' attitude was to personal computers."

    Grove has battled Parkinson's disease and devoted millions of dollars and work to support research into the disease. He has taken to alternative energy issues with a similar intensity, tapping into a network of plug-in enthusiasts and experts. Grove says he even bought a textbook on electric and hybrid vehicles written by a University of Akron professor.

    "They are all enthusiastically tutoring me," he said.

    Grove co-teaches a Stanford University business school seminar, and will devote the class next fall to examining ways of making the electric car possible.

    He acknowledges that the shift to electric transportation will be a daunting challenge, but notes that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt worked with Detroit's automakers during World War II to quickly retool their plants to supply the war effort. At a time of $4-plus a gallon for gas and the dangers of oil politics, those lessons shouldn't be lost.

    "I think technologically it's doable. I think the logic is pretty compelling," Grove said. "Somebody better drive it and play Roosevelt."

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